Back to Myanmar! We’ve covered the nitty-gritty (Myanmar visas, Yangon transport and FAQs), now for the fun part: exploring a brand new city! As we mentioned previously we fell head over heels for Myanmar and found that four days in Yangon offered a great taste-test. Here’s a rough template for your own Yangon itinerary. Enjoy!
Things to do in Yangon, Myanmar
Our 4-day itinerary: The best things to do in Yangon
▸ Part 1: First time to Myanmar: FAQs and ‘Yangon 101’
▸ Part 2: Things to do in Yangon: 4-day Yangon itinerary (follows below)
#1. Kandawgyi Lake
We walked from our hotel to Kandawgyi Lake, arriving about 11am … and we were the only people there. The lake is big and beautiful, though small enough to walk around and enjoy from every angle. Kandawgyi Lake is 150 acres (0.1% the size of Lake Geneva) and it’s a 5-mile walk around. You’ll find various parks around the lake’s edges, with boardwalks around and across, and could make a visit last as long as you like. In feel, it’s of a similar size to Hyde Park and it’s magic.
What to wear?
The boardwalks around the lake are quite uneven. They’re beautiful but you have to be careful walking. We wouldn’t recommend flip-flops.
What time of day to go?
Walking around the lake was the only time we really felt the heat during our stay in Yangon. After taking our time strolling the 5-mile lake boardwalks (about 2 hours – from 11am to 1pm) we were melting. Definitely wear a sun hat and plan to catch a taxi back to your hotel. Or, visit earlier in the morning or late afternoon. We enjoyed the quiet experience (that others were clearly avoiding at that time of day) and only felt the heat was too much right at the end.
#2. Shwedagon Pagoda
Like the Grand Canyon – nothing can prepare you for it. It’s massive. Breath-taking. Every awestruck cliché on the list. While indeed a place of worship, Shwedagon functions as a community centre too – you’ll see people of all ages dressed up in their best finery to have picnics, play with their kids, enjoy family time, go on a date or just read the paper. People-watching absolutely doesn’t get better than this. Not (what we thought was) just a single pagoda, the Shwedagon Pagoda compound is an absolutely massive realm of temples – they seem to go on forever. Rather than a strict religious site, everyone looked like they were there to enjoy themselves. Whatever you’d do and enjoy at a park, you could do better here.
TIP! Photographers: Bring various lenses – there are so many photo opportunities for panoramas, portraits and close-ups.
What to wear at Shwedagon Pagoda?
Culturally, it’s important to cover your legs (more so than your arms) but if you arrive in something unsuitable, a longyi is provided for men and women alike. Follow Thailand’s temple dress code and ideally amp up the coverage to your wrists and ankles. As in Thailand your shoes are left outside.
When to go?
Avoid mid-day. You explore Shwedagon bare foot and the marble floor gets very hot in the sun. We were hopping from one shade area to the next.
It’s a US$8 per head (8,000 kyat) entrance fee, plus a further US$1 for the lady who looks after your shoes. If, like us, you thought you were permanently ‘templed-out’, Shwedagon Pagoda is absolutely phenomenal and a visit is worth every penny.
TIP! Pay attention! Shwedagon has 4 entrances, but only one that foreigners/tourists go through. When you enter, remember where the entrance is – you’ll have to find your way back there to get out.
#3. Governor’s Residence
A bit of history, then a lot of photos. If you want to have your George Orwell moment – it’s ready and waiting. Once the home of governors of the British Crown Colony of Burma, the property become a hotel – Belmond Governor’s Residence – in 2006. This beautiful teak mansion is nearly 100 years old and offers unimaginable ‘bygone era’ charm.
TIP! The hotel’s house cocktail is the Belmondino – made with Mandalay Rum. It’s a little bit like a mojito, but better! Be sure to try one as you plan a return stay for a super-special occasion.
We didn’t stay here (see why we chose the Sule Shangri-La Yangon) but visited for lunch, drinks and dinner on 2 consecutive days. We went first for dinner and enjoyed it so much we forgot to take any photos. A return trip for lunch the next day felt obligatory. Truly an amazing place: service, food as superb as the surroundings, and an ambiance in the leagues of “BEST EVER”.
TIP! Gardeners: Before you leave, wander through the gardens – they’re spectacular. A reliable source told us ‘the most beautiful tree we’d ever seen’ was amherstia, also called ‘the pride of Burma’.
Belmond Governor’s Residence only has 48 rooms and they book out ages in advance – but the second-best option of visiting for dinner is a stunning consolation.
#4. Generally exploring Yangon
“We have a lot to smile about now” was the response of one local when we mentioned that everyone we’d met in Yangon was so lovely and smiling. Just wandering around Yangon, trying street food stalls, browsing markets and unplanned walks were all equal highlights.
Yangon’s historic architecture
Yangon’s architecture and history are especially interesting – The city doesn’t feel over-built, though there’s a noticeable spate of construction. The embassy district in particular has some spectacular villas. City-wide, as in Havana, old buildings are beautiful and captivating but many are fairly run-down (still very photo-worthy with incredible architecture).
Yet it’s not all colonial by any means and there are lots of utilitarian office and apartment blocks in the mix. It makes for fascinating exploration whether on foot or in a taxi. Add much more to your visit with the following expertise:
Love art? The River Gallery just celebrated its 10th birthday.
Yangon walking tours
We ourselves just headed off exploring Yangon with Lonely Planet but, if you love a tour, you have 3 options for walking tours in Yangon: Yangon Heritage Trust’s walking tours, Yangon Walking Tours and Free Yangon Walks.
TIP! For tourists, there’s only 1 (minor) negative aspect to Yangon (the rest is fantastic). It’s a polluted city – in the morning you can see a haze over the city, and sometimes taste the dust in the air. If we were staying longer we’d have wanted to get out of the city for a little respite. Otherwise, it’s cultural amazement. People are lovely, and the parks and temples are fantastic.
#5. Food and drink in Yangon
Food in Yangon
A favourite was a dish of slow-cooked pork with black bean sauce. If you’ll indulge our ongoing hyperbole, it was the best pork we’ve ever eaten. Food in Yangon is the perfect level of spice (for our dainty foreigners’ palates). It’s not fiery like full-strength Thai food, nor fierce like vindaloo. Fruit markets are an incredible sight and offered the biggest avocados we’ve ever seen. Plan to gorge on mohinga – roughly it’s Myanmar’s pad Thai – the national dish (fish noodle soup).
A few Yangon restaurant recommendations – some we enjoyed during our visit, and others have opened recently (as of May 2016) to rave reviews:
- Alex’s Gastro Bar at The Loft
- Golden Pho Yangon
- Le Planteur (special occasion – here you come!)
- Lucky 7 Tea Shop
- Mandalay Restaurant at Belmond Governor’s Residence
- Monsoon Restaurant
- Rangoon Tea House
- Rasa Lasa
- Sharky’s Yangon
- Trademark Café
TIP! Love to cook? Book a class at Flavours of Myanmar Cooking School
Myanmar’s alcohol offerings
We don’t take much convincing to try the full range of local tipple. Hear it first-hand: Mandalay beer and Mandalay rum are rather special. If you’re up for it, there’s Mandalay strong ale, too. Also worth trying is Burmese wine, which comes home-grown from a vineyard on Inle lake (Red Mountain Winery). In non-vintner-speak, it’s got a tang that seems semi-sparkling and is very, very good.
Bars in Yangon
Our 2011 Lonely Planet was most out-of-date in the nightlife section – lots of bars have opened since then and neither we, nor you, dear reader, should need persuading to pursue a thorough course of research. Alphabetically:
- 50th Street Bar & Grill
- Kipling Bar at Belmond Governor’s Residence
- Kosan Café
- Phayres Gastronomy
- Piano Bar
- The Strand Bar at The Strand (closed until November 2016)
- Yangon Yangon
#6. Shopping in Yangon
The best things to buy in Myanmar?
Longyis are a lovely thing to take home, and are ideal on a Southeast Asia trip when you might use it for a poolside cover-up or general lounging around. We bought a few that ranged in price from US$5 for a plain one to US$12 for a silk one. Teak carvings are extremely good quality (we bought one to fit our medium-sized suitcase for US$15). There’s a beautiful range of lacquerware in Yangon markets as well.
TIP! For a really special souvenir, visit local boutique Yangoods in one of its three locations. Find bags, cushions, canvas posters and everything else you desperately have to have.
How to plan for Myanmar: resources
We mentioned in above that we’d indulged in a rather O.C.D. Google session before visiting Myanmar. With just 4 days we didn’t want to miss a bit. Here’s everything, in book- and blog-form that proved useful.
1. DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Myanmar | 2. Lonely Planet Burmese Phrasebook | 3. Yangon Echoes: Inside Heritage Homes | 4. The Glass Palace | 5. Yangon: Architectural Guide | 6. Finding George Orwell in Burma | 7. 25 Walks in Myanmar | 8. Insight Guide: Myanmar | 9. Burmese Days | 10. Saving Fish From Drowning | 11. Myanmar (Burma) Travel Guide | 12. 30 Heritage Buildings of Yangon | 13. The Narrow Road to the Deep North | 14. Myanmar – Culture Smart! | 15. Lonely Planet Myanmar
#1. Get your Myanmar travel guide/s
As we’d had Myanmar on our list for a while, we had the 2011 Lonely Planet Myanmar. Though useful to a point, a lot has changed recently. Definitely do yourself a favour and get the updated copy. The top-rated Myanmar travel guides, in order of publication date, are:
#2. Get your Myanmar visa
Apply for your Myanmar visa online (a very slick, totally electronic process)
#3. Book your flight to Myanmar
#4. Book your Yangon hotel
See our 13 top choices for Yangon hotels (including high-end, boutique and fantastic budget/guest-house options).
#5. Learn your Myanmar Do’s and Don’ts
Everything you need to know about culture and etiquette is answered in Myanmar – Culture Smart!, and (as we proved with 4 words of Burmese), a little language effort goes a long way, so pack a Lonely Planet Burmese Phrasebook. CNN’s 11 things to know before visiting Myanmar is worthwhile – much of the content is for travellers who are brand new to Asia, but there’s some interesting stuff about how to eat and manners that are different from Thailand. Also see Top Tips for Yangon, by a Yangon expat.
#6. It’s time to read Burmese Days
Try these four books set in Burma – at various points in history – and it’s easy to see while everyone’s smiling these days. Burmese Days is as excruciating as it is hilarious – required reading before setting foot in the Governor’s Residence! (Of course – there are other books, but we don’t touch politics!)
1. Burmese Days, George Orwell
2. Saving Fish From Drowning, Amy Tan
3. The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan
4. The Glass Palace, Amitav Ghosh
5. Finding George Orwell in Burma, by Emma Larkin
#7. Tips for Yangon sightseeing
- Top attractions: Kandawgyi Lake and Shwedagon Pagoda
- Quick visit: 36 Hours in Yangon (The New York Times)
- Quirky visit: ‘Quick and Quirky’ guide to Yangyon (CNN)
- Checklist: 11 Fun Things To Do When You’re in Yangon, Myanmar
- Photo tour: Yangon food blogger tour and photographer’s tour
#8. Where to eat in Yangon?
- CNN Top Ten: 10 meals every Myanmar traveler should try
- Yangon street food: Eating a Winning Bowl of Mohinga in a Yangon Parking Lot
- Western food: Sharky’s: Local cheese and pizza in Yangon
#9. What to drink in Myanmar?
Wine: We mentioned previously that Burmese wine really stood out – delicious. Apparently the winery, Red Mountain Estate, is open for visits – something to add to a return trip or longer itinerary. See TripAdvisor + trip review (& photos) from ‘The Drinking Traveller’ – wish we’d thought of that blogging niche!
#10. Final Myanmar travel tip
One last tip for your departure from Myanmar. Mirroring the occasionally chaotic Bangkok Airways check-in at Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) – our check-in experience with Bangkok Airways at Yangon International Airport (RGN) was anything but slick. It’s first-come, first-served, no matter how problematic your fellow passengers. We had the good fortune to arrive just behind (A) a visiting orchestra (checking in an army’s worth of cellos), and (B) two tour groups of elderly Europeans, all of whom repacked their overweight suitcases at the check-in desk itself. (Perhaps the problem lay in the Burmese staff being too polite than say what a brisk Heathrow desk agent would offer). Give yourself more than two hours for your departing flight at the airport and keep your Kindle handy!
To plan your Myanmar trip:
Confirmed: Myanmar is a wonderful place and needs repeat visits. Just when we thought Thailand was our favourite place….
By Day 4 we weren’t ready to leave Myanmar but, as it’s just an hour’s flight from Bangkok, it’s easy to plan another visit. We can’t wait to return and see what’s outside Yangon. Ideally some time along the Ayeyarwady River – perhaps Bagan or Mandalay. Next time!